‘I am not a criminal,” convicted turtle poacher, Makotikoti Zikhali, 55, declared to more than 150 mourners at the burial of his 95-year-mother, Mthaba, in northern KwaZulu-Natal, on Saturday.
Zikhali was arrested in December 2009 for killing an endangered loggerhead turtle near the Kosi Bay mouth in the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site.
In March last year, he was sentenced to five years in jail. He was released on early parole on Friday night, making it home within hours of his mother’s burial.
The body of his mother had already been cleansed for burial and her grave had already being dug under an uMdoni tree in Mseleni.
It was here, relatives said, that Mthaba had often sat wondering when her last surviving son might come home.
Zikhali had requested that his family never tell his mother that he was in jail for killing a turtle.
He feared her “heart would rise and kill her” as happened a week after Zikhali’s story, “The Turtle Butcher”, was published by the Daily News in February.
On Saturday, a cracked photo frame with a picture of Mthaba was propped up with two sticks on top of her coffin.
The coffin, made from pieces of chipboard clasped together, was adorned by a red blanket and foliage picked from an uMlahlankosi tree.
This is said to enable communication with ancestors.
The branches from the uMlahlankosi tree and blanket went into the grave with Mthaba, along with a plastic bag containing her clothes and worldly possessions.
Zikhali said his family had not been able to keep his imprisonment a secret from his mother.
“She gave up hope of ever seeing me again,” Zikhali said.
When Roving Reporters last interviewed Mthaba, she said: “Every day and night I pray that Makotikoti comes back, but God does not answer.
“The only thing I think of now is the day of my death.”
Zikhali left prison in the clothes he had come in, but said he had not had time to burn them as part of a traditional cleansing ceremony to wash away the bad luck of jail.
“I have never stolen anything. I have never broken into anyone’s home, but I have had to share a prison cell and food with murderers.
“I often thought I might not get out of there alive.
“I am now just grateful to be out,” Zikhali said.
During his trial, Zikhali had denied killing a loggerhead turtle, but has since confessed.
At his mother’s graveside, he said he wanted to tell the whole world his story.
“I will write it, I promise,” Zikhali said.
“Many people know very little about turtles. Some have not even heard of them.”
“The turtle fat you can sell for muti, turtle eggs too,” added Zikhali.
“I used to sell a litre of turtle fat for R200 around Manguzi. In other areas, like Ngwavuma, people will pay up to R200 for a matchbox size portion of turtle fat.”
Zikhali said he would not go back to turtle poaching, but try to make shoes for a living.
“That’s the only good thing I got from prison.
“I learnt to make shoes and got a certificate. If I can get R1 000, I can make 50 pairs of shoes and sell them at R120 a pair. That is what I will focus on. I don’t think I should go back to fishing.”
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority has not yet issued a statement on Zikhali’s release.
Dr Scotty Kyle, an Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife ecologist, who testified at Zikhali’s trial, said the muti trade posed a very serious threat to the survival of turtles and other high priority species including many rare KZN plants and animals.
Kyle said Zikhali’s jail sentence had sent out a strong message that poaching of endangered species was a serious offence, carrying penalties of up to R10 million or 10 years in jail.